Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
31 March, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Shame is a subject that’s received a lot of press in recent years, at least in American culture. There’s some debate over whether it’s toxic, or a helpful social tool or dynamic. It may depend on how shame gets defined, and/or how shame is used.
According to Merriam-Webster, shame is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” It’s also “a loss of honor or esteem.” The verb forms usually involve an attempt to invoke those feelings in another person, with an eye toward influencing social behavior as a corrective tool. \
In his recently-published book, Jospeh Burgo explains that shame evolved as a means of establishing cooperation in small communities or tribes. He points out that the group needs cohesion in order to survive—and individuals are far more vulnerable alone than as part of a group—so alienating an individual through social isolation, devaluing their sense of honor or esteem as part of the group, shaming, is a way to ensure that the group holds together. Also, it’s a civilizing influence that helps to define boundaries between public and private.
Burgo makes the connection between guilt and shame—physiologically, they feel similar. But whereas the prick of guilt might lead us to make amends, shame pervades or defines a person’s sense of self, leading to deep-rooted experience of disconnection, of alienation. Shame makes us want to hide; it causes us to “feel isolated, terribly alone, shorn from the herd…”
Brené Brown, another author who has also spilled considerable ink on the subject, draws a similar distinction. She writes that, whereas guilt “is adaptive and helpful–it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort”, shame is destructive. Shame, Brown asserts, is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
However we wind up characterizing guilt and shame, the bottom line is that they are forces that drive a wedge in our relationships; they disconnect us from God, and from others. Today’s lectionary texts reflect the fact that shame is nothing new to the human experience, nor are our various responses to it.
“While I kept silence, my body wasted away. … For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer,” admits the Psalmist. Anyone who’s experienced the weight of shame, or a growing sense of guilt-related discomfort from something we’ve done or left undone that goes against our core principles, understands what he’s saying. When our actions (or failure to act) contribute to a disconnection between us and God or someone else, our souls feel the weight of that alienation because it defies the essential state of unity, of connection and wholeness, we were designed to enjoy. And that experience of alienation, that distance—especially when we harbor it silently, secretly, in dark or hidden places—can grow like a widening chasm, and also like a cancer that not only bears weight but also saps our strength and vitality in life.
But did you hear the Good News in what the Psalmist said? He turns the shame-filled impulse to hide, inside-out. He announces, “… I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” Moreover, transforming the experience of hiding in shame, he declares that God has become his hiding place, his source and place of protection: “You [God] are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”
Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel reading provides added good news about God’s love and salvation: even when we don’t yet recognize or accept the shameful state of our existence, God nonetheless eagerly awaits any demonstration of moving back toward God, hastening to embrace us and lavish us with abundant blessings, regardless of how blind we are to our own selfish preoccupations, despite our failure to appreciate the extravagance of grace.
Most of us know well how the story of the Prodigal Son goes, but I’d like to try to take a fresh look at it this morning. Brash, privileged, and apparently bored with the security and abundance he takes for granted, a young man speaks presumptuously to his father—who, for whatever reason (maybe we’ll understand by the end of the story), grants the boy’s audacious demand and hands over his inheritance prematurely.
Naturally, the boy doesn’t take long to squander everything, and finds himself “in a situation first-century Jews would have considered the epitome of shame: working in swine fields, feeding the pigs, desperately hungry and surrounded by famine.” But rather than doing the spiritual work of examining his appetites, instead of taking a hard look at the condition of his soul and interrogating his deepest hunger (those of you who were here for last week’s sermon will know what I’m referring to), the son persisted in a state of denial. He didn’t reflect on the ways that he’d been as reckless with his personal relationships as he had been with his family’s largesse. Instead of pondering how he might reconcile with his father and his family, he occupied himself with thoughts about how his father’s hired hands weren’t as hungry as he was. He prepared to go home by rehearsing a speech. He’d state the obvious: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” But, whereas renouncing the specific behaviors that had created distance might have revealed personal growth, he chose to insist: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
With Brown’s and Burgo’s distinctions in mind, I’ve read this story in a new light. I’m curious to hear whether you agree. Remember, Brené Brown contends that shame is “the intensely painful… experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—[that] something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” And Joseph Burgo claims that shame’s inherent experience of disconnection makes us feel so terribly alone, “shorn from the herd”, that we simply want to hide.
With those thoughts as a backdrop, I suddenly saw that the younger son was consumed by shame. He was so thoroughly absorbed by his conviction that his flaws made him unworthy of love and belonging, that he was trying to hide first and foremost from himself, by living in a state of denial. Although he acknowledged his sin in general terms, unlike the Psalmist the son could not or would not identify specifically what it was that had created the chasm between himself and his father in the first place. As long as he continued to hide the source of his distress from himself, he could not fully enjoy the healing and wholeness his soul longed for. Even as he returned home—the first steps toward reconciliation—he still intended to dictate the terms of the relationship, demanding that his father treat him as one of his hired hands. He was trying to deny his God-given identity as the father’s son, either unwilling or unable to accept that he could be loved or deemed worthy of genuine connection.
But the father, with a wisdom and compassion that far surpassed either of his sons’ understanding, had been watching for the young man’s return and ran to meet him, enfolding him in a divine embrace of astonishing grace.
That’s not the end of the story. In fact, some have suggested that what happens next is actually the center of gravity in the story. It’s probably what most of us need most to hear—it’s what might challenge our own responses, and calls us to a deeper reflection on our own need for divine grace, reconciliation, and wholeness.
When the older son heard about his brother’s return and his father’s response, he became incensed. His response reified his little brother’s shame—it confirmed and contributed to the alienation between them. But it also revealed the older brother’s own guilt and need for repentance.
I imagine the older son was the sort of person who might say about himself, “I think I’m a pretty good person. I always try to do the right thing.” And it was true: he dutifully fulfilled his family’s and society’s expectations of him. But part of Jesus’ message of salvation is that he had come as much for the renegades and rule-breakers as he had for all those who obey and don’t question whether they’re loved, who figure they’re worthy of salvation by dint of justice.
The lurking danger for “good people” is that—like the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled about Jesus’ welcoming of tax collectors and sinners—we mayspot scam artists, swindlers, and ne’er-do-wells . . . but we may notrecognize our own alienation, our personal disconnection from God’s heart and desires especially when we fail to welcome any of God’s beloved sinners. Jesus warned his listeners in a different place about noticing the splinter in their neighbor’s eye while being oblivious to the log in their own.
As Matthew Meyer-Boulton wrote in his reflection on this text: “The father knows his son all too well, knows he’s a con man, likely guesses that he may well be returning out of desperation rather than piety – and yet welcomes him anyway, with unbridled, ecstatic joy. The elder son knows his brother, too, of course, and isn’t buying it. Likewise, we can hear Jesus’ critics saying, Those tax collectors and sinners – they come and listen to you teach, sure, but they haven’t truly repented, they haven’t truly changed their lives; and you should hold back your welcome until they do!
And Jesus’ response, via this parable, amounts to this: How will they truly change their lives unless I gracefully welcome them in the first place? Grace doesn’t follow repentance–it enablesrepentance! And not just theirs; your repentance as well. My child, come in and celebrate! Let go of your fastidious accounts… Look, you’re already with me, what’s mine is yours; come in, come in, and rejoice in God’s extravagant love.
Grace does not right the scales of justice: it eclipses them and fashions something completely new. That can be difficult to accept—especially when we’re confronted, as the older brother was, with the reality that God’s love is constantly scanning the horizon for liars, cheats, and shameful characters of all sorts. God is always ready and willing to welcome any and all of us home.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” has long been a church favorite. It was written by a slave trader called John Newton. Newton’s life reveals a checkered past, and his conversion and genuine repentance happened gradually. He professed Christian faith and began reading his Bible after nearly drowning during a storm aboard one of his slave ships. Still, Newton continued profit from the sale of fellow human beings for years, making three more voyages as the captain of two different slave vessels. In 1754, he suffered a stroke and retired. But he continued to invest in the business. He wrote the famous hymn in 1772, and in 1788 published a powerful tract in which he finally, formally repudiated his participation in slave trading.
Like the younger brother in the parable, John Newton didn’t truly repent or turn from the behavior that isolated him from God, from others, and from his true self until afterhe was overwhelmed by grace. I see shame and denial in his story, even if he couldn’t at the time. For some of us, relinquishing habits or behaviors that disconnect us from God and others doesn’t happen until the wall of shame crumbles. It was not until John Newton finally allowed himself to accept that God’s love embraced him in spite of his worst life choices, that he felt his own fetters drop and genuine reconciliation could occur. The shame that had long consumed and defined a wretch like him was finally eclipsed, transformed by the power of God’s love. That’s amazing grace. And that Amazing Grace has got its heart set on you, and me too. Hallelujah! Amen.
Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem, 2018.
Ibid., p. 27.